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Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2009

SPORTS SCOPE

Ichiro certain to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer


There were a number of doubters nine years ago when Ichiro Suzuki became the first Japanese position player in Major League Baseball.

Jason Coskrey

Now that he's a superstar, as the major league records continue to fall, so does the number of skeptics.

Ichiro reached another MLB milestone on Sunday in Arlington, Texas, by becoming the first player in major league history to compile nine consecutive 200-hit seasons. He was previously tied with Hall of Famer Wee Willie Keeler, who had eight from 1894-1901.

On top of an already brilliant career, the most recent record should cement Ichiro's status as a future first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Currently in his ninth season in the majors, Ichiro has been a nine-time All Star (winning the MLB All-Star Game MVP in 2007), won eight Gold Gloves (with a ninth possible this season), two Silver Slugger Awards and a pair of batting titles.

Only Pete Rose, MLB's all-time hit king, has more 200-hit seasons (10), though Rose didn't do it consecutively. With the way things stand now, Ichiro should be running down that number around this time next year.

What's even more impressive is that Charlie Hustle's 10th 200-hit season came in his 17th year in the majors. It's taken Ichiro just nine years to record nine.

Ichiro is the second-fastest player to 2,000 hits in major league history and has more than 3,000 hits when his MLB numbers are combined with the 1,278 he had for the Orix BlueWave. Given his proficiency at the plate and relatively injury-free career, getting to 3,000 hits in the major leagues isn't out of the question.

Of course the stats stand out, but Ichiro's impact goes far beyond what numbers can measure.

In Japan, he's a source of pride to the people and the nation's baseball players.

"Only Ichiro can break a 100-year-old major league record," revered former Yomiuri Giants star Shigeo Nagashima told Kyodo News. "He respects the game and has strengthened mentally and physically. I hope he continues to improve and brings more dreams to children — future baseball players."

It wasn't too long ago, however, that many openly wondered whether or not the slender Japanese outfielder could hold up against the rigors of a 162-game MLB season.

The gaudy numbers, seven batting titles and three MVP awards he won with the Orix BlueWave were regarded as statistics compiled against inferior talent in an inferior league.

With the doubts swirling in 2001, his rookie season, Ichiro silenced the critics by leading the majors with 242 hits while batting .350 and garnering 2001 AL Rookie of the Year and MVP honors.

Much in the way pitchers Masanori Murakami and Hideo Nomo paved the way for Japanese players in the majors, Ichiro helped blaze the trail for position players — especially those not known for their power, including current second basemen Kazuo Matsui of the Houston Astros and Akinori Iwamura of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Ichiro has not only shown the world that a Japanese position player can excel in the majors, but also proven that Japanese baseball isn't as inferior as those early detractors made it out to be.

Japan's pair of World Baseball Classic titles and current MLB stars such as New York Yankees slugger Hideki Matsui and Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka also helped drive that point home in recent years.

For Americans, during an era of power hitters and inflated home run totals, Ichiro has reminded baseball fans that there is more than one path to Cooperstown. That a player doesn't have to bulk up (naturally or unnaturally) and start swatting home runs in order to become a superstar.

Ichiro will likely end his career as the first person to achieve a number of MLB milestones. But his most defining "first" will have to wait at least five years after he records his final hit.

That will be the day he becomes the first Japanese player to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.



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